CDT Days 23-51: Colorado

Chama to Pagosa Springs

On the morning of 6/1/22 the owner of the hotel in Chama drove me and some other hikers up to the pass. We decided to backtrack to hit the CO/NM, just to make things official. I was in awe by the grassy rolling mountains and quaking green of aspens everywhere I looked. If this is what northern NM was like, then I had definitely missed out.

Elevation hit hikers like a ton of bricks in this section. I too gasped for air on steep ascents over snowy passes those first few days. Nights and mornings were cold, Ptarmigan ruled the hillsides, and water was now abundant. It was obvious that coming to CO had thrust me directly into the NOBO bubble as well. I met new hikers every day, and nearly everyone I came across seemed to have dropped their mileage from what they were doing in NM.

Day 25 would be one of my most challenging yet. By midmorning we reached a snow traverse that didn’t feel safe. I had no traction devices, no ice axe, so we opted to downclimb away from the redline and into the valley below. Despite this, I found myself on a snow chute all the same; I fell. Down I slid on the impossibly steep snow. I tried to self arrest with my poles to no avail. Spinning and hurtling toward the rocks below I went, until at last I was able to grab onto a thorny bush in desperation. The result was a few superficial scrapes and a bruised ego. I am lucky to have made it out relatively unscathed.

The next day would be a long 8 miles into Pagosa Springs, CO. Blowdowns and more snow littered the trail. Still, I made it to Wolf Creek Pass before 10 AM and was able to secure a ride into town in the back of a pick-up. In town I ate copious amounts of pizza and acquired a resupply box sent by my girlfriend, which contained new shoes, ice axe, and microspikes.

Pagosa Springs to Lake City

It was difficult not to vortex in Pagosa Springs. I had more pizza before grabbing some last minute stuff from the grocery and hitching out. I’d hike about 10 miles out of town that afternoon. Ironically, the snowfields out of Wolf Creek Pass are one of the only times I’d use my microspikes the entire state.

This section felt similar to the section before: plenty of water, but also a few suspect traverses with snow. I’d downclimb past the infamous Knife’s Edge (this time not sliding to my near doom) on the night of day 28. Many hikers along the way feared this section.

I respect the snow, but I didn’t fear navigating it as we moved to higher elevations. Many hikers took the Creede Cutoff to bypass it, but truthfully there was hardly any snow to contend with anyway. The bigger struggle was hiking above 10k feet for what must have been close to 200 miles. That meant crossing over Ute Pass on day 29 to find glorious views of the San Juan Mountains before camping near the lakes below. This was the most beautiful section of the CDT so far.

I felt slow and oddly emotional the next day as I labored up Hunchback Pass. I thought back to my fall during the previous section. I had only narrowly avoided serious injury- what would have happened has I perished? Who would look after my loved ones if I was gone? These dark thoughts fueled me as I joined the intersection of the CDT and CT. Right away the Colorado Trail proved to have a smoother texture than the divide, for which I was grateful. Despite it all, Cleansweep and I managed to do our first 30 mile day in Colorado. This trend would continue: we’d hike a minimum of 30 miles on every single full day on trail (not including town stops) the rest of the state.

On day 31 I saw my first moose and hiked 18.7 miles by noon. I crossed over the Colorado Trail highpoint before hitching into Lake City, which is a funny town. While the community had much to offer hikers, it seemed every business was being operated by 12 year-olds who were freshly out of school for the summer. The result: incredibly lackluster service everywhere I went. Still, I can’t complain – I am but a mere visitor in their town.

Lake City to Monarch Pass

Day 32 brought a sweet hitch out of Lake City: a resident Triplecrowner and his partner picked us up, beered us, and took us back to the pass. I enjoyed strolling over the ever-flat Snow Mesa before getting back into the typical ups and downs that CO provided. It ended up being a 20 mile day out of town before making camp in a beautiful river valley.

The following morning provided a juicy elevation profile: long and slow decline while spitting us out into a sun-drenched valley reminiscent of New Mexico. I enjoyed ambling among a few aspen groves that afternoon and even made it about 35 miles before making camp. Lots of hikers were seen that day, but I didn’t talk to many: most of us seemed to be grinding toward our next destination.

I had PUDs for breakfast the next day (pointless ups and downs), which the CDT is apparently full of. This section was relatively dry but seemed to go by quickly thanks to a flatter elevation profile. Dirt bikers shared the trail with us, which was a new experience for me. That afternoon I experienced my first lightning storm on the CDT. Although we were early for monsoons, lightning is always a real possibility at such elevation, so we waited it out about an hour before pressing on. Camp was made at a sweet overlook off a jeep road, not far from Monarch Pass.

It was a cool 14 miles into Monarch Pass the following morning. I indulged in a soft pretzel and egg sandwich at the convenience store there. Happy, a former PCT hiker, was doing magic as well. I grabbed a beer for the road and made my way to Monarch Mountain Lodge, where I had a resupply box waiting. That afternoon I meandered down the highway to the Butterfly House, which was one of my first hostel experiences on the CDT. The hostel provided a shower, laundry, and even had beer on tap from the kitchen sink! It was the perfect respite for the afternoon. That evening I hiked back onto the redline for a few miles before making camp.

Monarch Pass to Breckenridge

The 36th day on the CDT was one of the windiest I’ve encountered in all my days thru hiking. Seriously, I got battered by gusts from dawn till dusk. Cleansweep, my hiking partner, had a birthday that day – other than our lunch celebration, the powerful winds served as motivation for us to haul up and over every pass. We crossed Cottonwood Pass around 8 PM and made camp in the valley below, grateful for another 30 miles behind us.

I broke my water filter that might in my tent. Cleansweep was generous in allowing me to borrow his the next day. The valley we were descending into was dark and cold, and it wouldn’t be until we were climbing Lake Anne Pass that we finally got some sun. Lake Anne Pass was rumored to have dangerous snow and a perilous cornice, for which I admittedly carried some apprehension. Luckily it wasn’t so bad: in fact, outside of a 10-ft sketchy section, it was pretty easy. The resulting glissade down the next couple hundred yards of snow was the most fun I’d had on trail up to that point. That afternoon was a bit harder, as Hope Pass was considerably steeper to climb. I ended up making camp only a few miles from the village of Twin Lakes, CO.

On day 38 I grabbed a new filter and some snacks from the general store in Twin Lakes. I felt grateful for clear sky as we began the climb to the top of Mt. Elbert, highest mountain in CO and second tallest in the lower 48. Elbert isn’t officially on the CDT, but no self-respecting thru hiker would pass up this opportunity. The climb was much more mild than I expected and we pretty much had the summit to ourselves. It did eat up a chunk of the day, however, and we would end up hiking until 11:30 PM just to help makeup miles.

I didn’t get much sleep that night. We woke up early the following morning and had walked through Holy Cross Wilderness before 10 AM. I met a few other hikers that morning, but they all hitched into Leadville, CO from Tennessee Pass while I pushed on. Kokymo Pass was the goal that afternoon – I slogged through mud and snow on the north end of the pass for what felt like forever. Around 32 miles in, Cleansweep pointed out that Copper Mountain was only 6 miles away. We hiked down to the resort, spurred by the promise of cold beer. Elixir of the gods, it was. We barely capped 40 miles before making camp outside of town.

The hike into Breckenridge from camp was only 13 miles, but boy it wasn’t easy. I felt hungover from the previous night – perhaps it was the beer, or perhaps it was the 40 mile day. Regardless, I climbed one final pass before battling a snowy, blowdown-drenched trail into the woods. Day hikers became more prevalent the closer I got to Breckenridge. A Trail Angel, Real Deal, surprised hikers with magic down at the trailhead. I indulged briefly before making my way into town, where I enjoyed vegan pizza and bought new shorts (my previous shorts had a hole since Lake City). Man, what an expensive stay.

Breckenridge to Grand Lake

My wallet was lighter and my backpack heavier by the time I left Breckenridge. It would be our last section along the Colorado Trail’s smooth texture, so I tried to savor it. Some local mountain bikers gave us beers right before we made camp, maybe 15 miles out of town.

Day 42 was a doozy: the Argentine Spine and Gray’s Peak brought some serious elevation change. I’d climb close to 6k ft in less than 10 miles as the trail ran at high elevation along the ridges of a deep basin. Goats were plentiful that day, as I must have seen at least 3 dozen along the way. After lunch we traversed the Argentine Spine, but bailed halfway in favor of the easier grade of the redline below. The walk along the ridge towards Gray’s involved some light scrambling, which made for slow, but very fun miles. In the evening we did it: we summitted Gray’s Peak, my 2nd 14er on trail, and highest official point on the CDT. The remaining hours of the day were spent descending the mighty mountain and making camp.

This year, the Summer Solstice fell on 6/21/22. I celebrated by hiking in the nude (Darn Toughs and Altra Lonepeaks still on, of course) for a few miles at 13k that morning. It felt appropriate to put clothes back on as the trail became a scramble around a few large snow patches. In the afternoon we climbed Mount Flora, careful to traverse snowy on the north side. I made camp in an icy basin below. I was tired, but life was good.

On the morning of day 44 I climbed James Peak, which is the last 13k ft. mountain on the CDT. It was an absolute slog, and I’m glad it is behind me. The midmorning observed a slow descent toward the Devil’s Thumb and Arapaho National Forest, which has to be my favorite section thus far. The afternoon brought 3 different moose sightings, eagles, and osprey alike.

The following day began with wildlife encounters near Monarch Lake. Several deer, a cow and calf moose, and an eagle were spotted right away. Cleansweep saw a mountain lion (with video proof), but scared it away before I could see it as well. Later we found a flush of spring porcini, which are among the most decadent and sought after wild mushrooms. Finally we made it to Grand Lake, CO, which sits on the doorstep of Rocky Mountain National Park. We resupplied, got pizza, and did laundry before retiring for the night at Shadow Cliff hostel.

Grand Lake to Steamboat Springs

On day 46 we ventured into Rocky Mountain National Park, but not before I felt the hostel room keys in my pocket and had to rush to return them. We saw several moose as we entered the park, followed by the beautiful Cascade Falls. I crossed over the top of Flat Top Mountain (who names these things?) and descended just in time to avoid an intense storm. I took refuge in the woods below as hail fell and lightning cracked above. That afternoon, on the short roadwalk out of the park, a local couple graced me with a honeycrisp apple. In the evening we climbed through Bowen Gulch and made camp in the aptly named Never Summer Wilderness.

Up and over Bowen Pass I went on the morning of the 47th day. The north side of the pass was riddled with annoying snow fields and blowdowns, which made the miles come slowly. That afternoon brought a new challenge: Parkview Lookout, which is the last 12k ft. peak on the trail. Although it was only 12k, it felt like one of the hardest climbs on the entire trail up until that point. I put the climb behind me and enjoyed some gentle ridge walking in the evening around sunset before making camp below.

Day 48 was a breath of fresh air by comparison. In 3 miles I joined a dirt road which had such a buttery smooth texture and gentle downward slope, I couldn’t help but make excellent time on the hike. Trail Angel Jim, a local who lives dispersed on BLM and USFS land in the summer, provided us with some water along the way. I took my first break around 19 miles deep. The remaining 9 miles of the day would take place on a highway with a narrow shoulder. Once at the pass, a lovely couple picked us up and brought us into town. My friend and former guiding coworker, Anna, lives in Steamboat Springs, and she was generous in letting us camp out in her living room. Anna and I caught up on life while we all went out for Mexican food. Steamboat was absolutely rad.

Steamboat Springs to Wyoming

Day 49 was a true nero. Anna dropped us off downtown on her way to work. We grabbed breakfast, I picked up bug spray and a head net, and I mailed my ice axe and microspikes home. We spent the afternoon napping at Anna’s place before hitching out that evening. We made camp almost as soon as we re-entered the woods, feeling refreshed from our stay in town.

The trail north of Steamboat Springs was riddled with annoying snow fields for the next 30 miles. It was tough walking, but we managed to slog through Mt. Zirkel Wilderness in one go. The alpine lakes an exposed rock of the region vaguely reminded me of the Sierra Nevada of my home. 35 miles were walked that day, and by nightfall, Wyoming was within striking distance.

On the 51st day we woke up early with hopes to lunch at the Wyoming border. Finally, trail seemed to get easier, as we followed a dirt road for most of the morning. I hiked 25 miles by 2 PM: finally, Wyoming. We celebrated with lunch and took our shoes off for a while. Just as we began to hike onward, a thunder storm rolled in. Thunder echoed all around us as we hunkered down in some trees. Soon, despite my better judgement, I fell asleep and took a short nap. Our hopes of a 40 mile day dashed, we hiked into the rainy night to finish 37 miles before bed.

I am grateful to put CO behind me: it took 28.5 days to complete the entire state. Out of all the states I’ve walked across, Colorado ranks quite high: perhaps only CA and WA top it for me, personally. It’s high peaks, stunning wildlife, and beautiful water features are something to behold. New Mexico felt like a grind, but Colorado felt like I was thru hiking at last. Onward to Wyoming!

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